#320 Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
Long before he was a vampire hunter, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer who occasionally struggled in his work. Young Mr. Lincoln depicts a legal battle that would prepare one of our greatest presidents for one of the most devastating conflicts Americans would ever engage in.
Young Mr. Lincoln is a meeting of 3 iconic American personalities: the legacy of the eponymous president, of course, the Classical Hollywood American director John Ford, who created what we know the cinematic West to be, and the film’s star, Henry Fonda, who embodied a particular American idealism of the 1930s and 1940s which meshed perfectly with Lincoln’s principles.
#336 Dazed & Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Taking place 200 years after the Revolutionary War, Dazed & Confused follows an ensemble of teenagers taking part in the great American tradition of youthful debauchery, carelessness, and irresponsibility. In one tumultuous day followed by an endless night, the young men and women of Dazed & Confused fall in love, share conspiracy theories, buck the system, embrace anarchy, and effectively challenge authority, almost as if they’re on the verge of causing a new miniature revolution that’s all their own. L-I-V-I-N’
#545 Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
Really, the entire BBS set should be on this list, but Easy Rider is the seminal work of American counterculture made by a Hollywood studio. The son of a great American idealist, Peter Fonda plays “Captain America” traversing the New Old West with Billy his sidekick (Dennis Hopper) as they fend off hippie-haters and ride on the fumes of LSD. The film not only perfectly encapsulates an incredibly important cultural moment in 20th century American history, but it’s a necessary reminder of the earnestness of the countercultural movement’s search for a new kind of American freedom.
#557 The Times of Harvey Milk (Robert Epstein, 1984)
This is a nation that has often prided its nurturing of a citizenry who are encouraged to say what they believe to be right, whether or not it’s popular. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected to significant office, is no doubt a truly American figure in the category of fearless outspokenness in the face of adversity.
A man who trusted in the power of community mobilization, democratic action, and organized activism, Milk was the type of force for change that characterizes many of our history’s prominent political and cultural icons, and this biographical documentary captures his spirit and his contributions beautifully.
#591 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
Here’s Henry Fonda again. In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision, 12 Angry Men proves a lasting reminder of the power of an individual dissent in the American justice system. 12 Angry Men is also a reminder that we need now more than ever about how our greatest decisions have often been, and should always be, made on deliberation and critical reason rather than groupthink. For a nation founded on dissent, 12 Angry Men remains a potent and transportable allegory.
Mr. Freedom (William Klein, 1969), from Eclipse Series 9: The Delirious Fictions of William Klein
After American photographer William Klein expatriated to France, he made several inventive and idiosyncratic feature films, one of which was this Vietnam-era satire about an imperialist functionary superhero named “Mr. Freedom” sent to France to defer a Communist invasion from baddies Moujik Man and Red China Man.
Mr. Freedom is a colorful and biting satire about American hubris-gone-awry, and a helpful reminder about how bastardized, politicized, and enslaving ideas like “freedom” can become.
What are your favorite American films in The Criterion Collection?